My bestseller-reading frenzy of the past few years has stamped out many of my misconceptions about popular literature, but I have to say one of my biggest surprises throughout the project was learning that fantasy is not a mega-bestselling genre. I thought it would be right up there with the romances and thrillers. But no. Fantasy—like Westerns and sci-fi—is a genre that doesn’t make the end-of-the-year lists. (A few stragglers from these three lonely genres do climb onto USA TODAY’s top 150 most weeks. Right now there’s a Western up there, #116, called Matt Jensen: Last Mountain Man. I love it.)
Of course, the very top sellers of the entire previous 16 years are fantasy novels. But Harry Potter doesn’t appear on the Publishers Weekly lists, no matter how much wizardy goodness he doles out, because his is a series for children. And Publishers Weekly, it turns out, hates children.
In their relentless attempt to suppress America’s youth, they also banished another miracle title from the list: Eragon by Christopher Paolini, a young adult fantasy novel that soared to popularity in 2003. (It spent 170 weeks on the USA TODAY list. Unlike Publishers Weekly, which has all these different categories and rules, USA TODAY is sort of the whore of the major bestseller lists. Kids’ books, atlases, stick figures etched on binder paper—USA TODAY could care less. If people buy it, and it loosely resembles a book, it makes the charts.) Since our mission in Why We Read What We Read was to conquer the Publishers Weekly lists, we just didn’t have time for Eragon.
But times have changed and I finally got around to it. Dragons! Elves! Magic! Woo! Eragon takes place in a traditional fantasy universe populated with, well, dragons, elves, and magic. The eponymous hero starts out some random poor kid (an orphan, naturally); but when he finds a mysterious stone that turns out to be a dragon egg, his dragon-ridin’, magic-usin’ destiny begins to unfold. As I often explain to our daughter, the most profound stories always involve both magic and orphans, so Eragon had to be at least as good as, say, the film Like Mike.
The comparison turns out to be apt. While NBA superstars never show up in Eragon, it’s hard to say which work is more predictable. Eragon is chock-full of stock characters and plot devices, not to mention a blatantly Tolkieny backdrop complete with an invented, quasi-Celtic language. Thinking all this might be essential to the genre—like happy endings are to romance novels—I checked out some reader reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing the point. But no—adult reviewers are pretty quick to point out the derivative nature of the book, calling it a blend of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the works of a couple prominent fantasy writers. I was disappointed to learn that the two things I found most compelling about Eragon—the psychic connection between dragon and rider, and the physical cost of magic use—had also been borrowed from other authors.
Young reviewers, on the other hand, give the book high marks—presumably because they have not read most of the other works from which Eragon‘s conventions are derived. Someday they’ll probably read Tolkien and wonder why he so flagrantly ripped off Christopher Paolini.
Of course, there can be a fine line between a rip-off and a reference. Many, many books, after all, make use of archetypal characters and the myth cycle. But what we expect from such stories—and what Eragon lacks—is an original take on those concepts, an infusion of new ideas to broaden and refresh the old.
That being said, I did think the book was competently written as far as plot-driven adventure novels go. The language (which also garnered criticism from adult reviewers) is actually more sophisticated than that of many other bestsellers out there. The characterization is seriously lacking, but again, so is that in the books of Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark.
A lot of the praise for Eragon seems to revolve around the author’s young age. You see a lot of, “wow, it’s great…for a 15-year-old!” (How insulting is that?) It seems to be me people just don’t read the work of 15-year-olds much—I would suspect that most talented writers are capable of penning plot-driven works as teenagers. At any rate, books should stand on their own. I don’t buy that we should judge a novel differently because its author is young. Paolini chose to publish Eragon, to put it up against others in the marketplace. That means we should assess it as we would any other.
And whether Paolini will develop into a great writer someday is hard to predict. I believe he has talent; I also believe (from the numerous references in his author’s note) that he leaned heavily on others for assistance with basic grammar and punctuation, which makes me wonder if he’ll ever really master the language (a born writer should have pretty strong English intuition by age 15). Would this book ever have seen the light of day if Paolini’s parents hadn’t owned their own publishing company, if they hadn’t funded their own tour through schools and libraries? Impossible to say. Paolini got lucky—as every author of a bestselling book does—but his books also genuinely resonate with young readers, which is a feat fewer and fewer writers seem to achieve. I didn’t love Eragon, but it’s not the worst bestseller out there by a long shot. With any luck Paolini will outgrow his mimicry, pull himself together grammatically, and give us something original next time.